by Tom Greggs.
We live in an age in which our identities shape so much of our engagement with the world. Even covid-19 seems to differentiate in relation to identity with certain groups being more liable to contract it in a dangerous way than others—groups, indeed, not based on any medical conditions but on other factors of identity (such as gender and race) or else in terms of material wealth and social privilege.
The fight for personal privileging at the expense of the other is as old as humanity itself.[i] Indeed, the fall narrative indicates a horizontal fall (in relation to the self-preservation of the individual over and against the other) even before a vertical one: humans fall in relation to each other before they fall (narrativally) in relation to God. Humans become ashamed of each other (Gen 3:8-10) and they divert blame from each other (Gen 3:12,14). They become prepared to sacrifice the other for the sake of their own privilege: ‘It wasn’t me, God, but Eve – the woman you gave me,’ says Adam, while Eve diverts the blame to another creature in the garden (the serpent).
In salvation, through Christ and the ongoing work of the Spirit, we are put right with one another as well as with God. Rather than privileging each of themselves, the early church was called to hold all things in common, and to privilege the widow and the orphan (Acts 2:44-45, 4:34-35; 1 Tim 5:3; Jas 1:27 cf. Deut 10:18, 15:4; Ps 146:9). And in salvation we are told the differences we have are rendered subservient to the most profound identity we share in Christ (Gal 3:28).
In baptism, we lose our old identities of privilege and hierarchy, and discover who we are in relation to one another in Jesus. To deny this on any side or to fail to uphold it in any way is to deny the gospel, to deny our baptism, to deny who we are in Christ and who the Spirit is making us in redemption. Indeed, it is not just the case that there is no longer ‘slave’ in Christ, but there is also no longer ‘free’ (Gal. 3:28): to be in Christ abolishes that way of being ‘free’ that requires somebody else to be a slave. To be in Christ abolishes, we might say, a competitive polity of privilege.
We need to rethink in radical ways what it is to find a fundamental identity in Christ which undermines social, material and relational injustice, transforming not only the sense of who we are, but the very practice of our humanity in the communities of which we are a part. This is not a psychological fulfilment of inclusion but a practical and living practice of belonging: we belong fundamentally to Christ in whom the privileged find themselves often outcasts and the outcasts find themselves privileged.
Put personally, I am not foundationally male or white or from a working-class background, any more than I am foundationally a person with black hair (in fact, it’s greying). No! I may well be shaped inevitably by all these identities, but I am foundationally and fundamentally made in the image of God, a participant in Christ, a child of God, a human who shares Christ’s humanity, a Christian baptised by water and the Spirit. All other markers count as nothing in relation to this high calling and high identity: at best, these identities subsist in the identity I have in Christ. This asymmetry of the fundamental and the subsistent should shape my theology and my method, but more profoundly my life, my ethics, my discipleship. It is not the privileging, then, of those like me (whoever that ‘me’ is!) which is should be my concern in my dealings with society, but the reality of encountering the gospel and its absolute claim on my life through the resurrected Jesus and the power of the Spirit. This absolute claim involves a transformation of my patterns of life and behaviour, my sense of who I am, and my desire for a piece of the privilege pie.
It is not only our identities which we must consider in relation to these matters, but also issues which are more broadly social and economic: social sin and evil, including structural injustice, poverty and vast material inequality. Scripture does not consider justice to be about fighting for a piece of the privilege pie for me or those like ‘me’. Instead, Scripture repeatedly talks prophetically about issues of justice, of righting injustice, and of finding God in the outcast, the least and the last. Meanwhile, those who presume their place of privilege and fight for it (as the Pharisees and Sadducees did – Mt 23:6; Lk 11:43) find themselves in a very precarious place. The Prophets resound with calls for justice and care for the poor and the needy. In comparison even to liturgical worship, the God of Hebrews (of the Hapirus, the slaves) calls forth for justice, and it is God’s call we should heed in our divided world, especially at this time of crisis, as we hear Christ encounter us as the Great Prophet echoing the words of His predecessors:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-4)
[i] I have discussed this in other places at length before: most notably, my overly large Dogmatic Ecclesiology Vol 1: The Priestly Catholicity of the Church, but also my more digestible The Breadth of Salvation and even on this forum before.
8 thoughts on “Identity in Christ”
What Tom means by salvation is not what salvation means to me. Yes, I know it is a human failing to categorise people and, to our shame, this often leads to sacrificing the other person for the sake of our own privilege. However I am not sure that the remedy for this “original sin” is salvation achieved by assuming that we are only put right with each other through Christ or in Jesus. I feel this is divisive, creating a category. Of course we have to categorise in many situations in life, but the demand “written on out hearts”, God’s Law that we should love our neighbour and the awesome words of Amos 5:21-4 are all about ethics, that we be just and fair in our dealings with all we meet. In my opinion to categorise people as either saved or not saved is unethical and therefore logically, theologically and spiritually unacceptable. Logically this is obvious. Theologically it implies that the love of God is conditional. That to be acceptable to God, and therefore forgiven, reconciled, redeemed and loved, we have to be “saved” and then we are in a special privileged group called Christians. For me either the whole of humanity is “saved” or nobody is. The love of God, as shown by the life of Jesus, is unconditional; radically inclusive and non-judgemental. If it were not so I doubt he would have been crucified in that his message would have been the same as that of the pharisees.
Spiritually I can only speak for myself. The realisation that God’s love is unconditional is overwhelming, amazing and meaningful, and that realisation is my salvation.
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You are right. Robert. Spiritually, you can only speak for yourself!
Jesus speaks for me:
‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.’ John 14:6
Whether that happened through his death and resurrection, or whether it happens through spiritual enlightenment is open to question. Either way, it is salvation. I’m pleased you have found yours, but don’t begrudge anyone else finding theirs, however they find it.
Not sure that “begrudge” fits what I tried to say. For me, irrespective of biblical quotes, the ethical concern for others overrides any other concern, and salvation from sin is about self-concern.
But from your stance, Robert, it makes no difference whether we are totally selfless or totally selfish, as you are so convinced that God’s love is unconditional and that a) we do not need saving or b) everyone is saved. And you are implying that anyone who believes in personal salvation has no concern for others. We can have a healthy balance.
I’m much more sympathetic to Tom’s point of view than the previous contributors, though it does leave me with some uncomfortable questions. Your emphasis on our foundational identity in Christ overcoming the divisions of ethnicity, sexuality, etc, is very welcome. The present state of the world (as I write we are still in the throes of the US election count) underlines the dividing distortion of sin and the common need for redemption. That Christians have consistently failed to ‘become what they already are’ (to quote a Pauline scholar whose name I’ve forgotten) underlines our state of being simul justus et peccator and our need to be challenged by the vision of holiness that Christ shares with us.
So I am discomforted by the knowledge of how poorly my own practice, and that of my community, reflects our foundational identity in Christ. And I’m anxious about how we might address that gap without drifting into a misguided attempt at theocracy or a sectarian separation of the Church from the world, however tempting that might be. I wonder if we need to set Tom’s Christo-iconic (if that’s the right term) vision of human life alongside a contemporary version of Augustine’s City of God, with its sense of the work of God embracing the whole of human life (the city of the world) as well as the Christian community.
I keep saying that there is a demand (God’s Law) written on our hearts that we care for others and that all human beings are called to work for justice and fairness. So we, all of us, already know that we should move from being self-obsessed egoists to other-obsessed altruists. It is part of being human. Therefore it is of the utmost importance to me that I respond to God’s word and aim to be selfless and not selfish. I maintain that God affects all humanity in this way. His love for us is amazing and utterly unconditional: As with the love shown by Jesus we are not judged as unworthy or evil and there is definitely no deal involved – we are saved, forgiven, reconciled, redeemed and loved “while we are yet sinners”. Paul explains this far better than me, especially in 1 Cor 1:25, 27-28. The realisation that God’s love is unconditional is overwhelming, amazing and meaningful, and that realisation is my salvation.
I gave three reasons why the love of God is unconditional. I can think of two more: The love of a parent to their child is unconditional so how can the love of God be less than that! The second is that judgement and expecting people to be “saved’ from their supposed sins leads to harmful Christianity where vulnerable people become convinced of their unworthiness in the sight of God. This is abuse. I know of people, generally young women, who have suffered from depression or mental illness as a result of this doctrine. In one awful incidence this resulted in suicide! We are not sinners in need of repentance that need saving. We are God’s children, vulnerable, yet trying to live authentic lives, knowing that nothing can separate us from His love.
To move on I wanted to comment on the very interesting point that Richard made about the choice between theocracy and the secularism of Augustine’s City of God. I would suggest that theocracy is out of the question: It has been tried – Luther, Calvin and in recent times in Iran. It will not work because the Kingdom of God is based on unconditional love which is OK, even wonderful, in respect of the spirituality of humanity, but kenosis comes into this and God expects us to deal with the practical matter of working for justice and fairness. It is the difference between motivation and praxis. I cannot quote chapter and verse for this view which seems to be my own invention. Nevertheless, it may be the case that secularisation based on this unconditional love is the only option. I am still thinking about this!
I like to think God’s love is unconditional, but how can we possibly know that?
I disagree that all parental love is unconditional; it can be sorely tested by challenging behaviour and some parents do end up disowning their children.
I think unconditional love by human beings is desirable but impossible. Can you honestly say you love the person who beheaded a French schoolteacher in public in broad daylight because he was encouraging his pupils to think for themselves?
My answer to Yvonne’s question is yes, impossible though it may seem to be, in Christ we are to forgive.
It fascinates me how one thing leads to another and we learn from the exchange of ideas. Tom wrote about identity in Christ then I questioned the exclusiveness and the judgmental nature of the concept of personal salvation. This led me to think about grace and the utter unconditionality of the love that God bestows on us.
Now, I have been trying to find some means of rethinking conditionality. I came across this statement on the internet:
“God’s love is unconditional according to His grace and mercy, but also conditional in His holiness and sovereignty”. This of course is rubbish. God’s love is either conditional or not conditional because love cannot be part conditional and part not conditional. Love is an absolute. Of course we could assume God loves the sinner but not the sin, but that still implies His/Her love is part conditional and part unconditional.
The problem with unconditionality is that it leaves me/us with a dilemma. Yes, murderers and paedophiles have to be locked up, but in Christ forgiveness is not conditional, so we should forgive!
My answer to this dilemma is to make a clear distinction between motivation and practice. In Christ we are motivated to forgive our enemies and forget the harm they do, but in practice it is our duty to protect ourselves and others. Theologically this distinction follows from kenosis. God absents Him/Herself from the facticity of a broken relationship and it is our calling to respond to this and bring healing and hope where there appears to be none.
The distinction between motivation and practice implies a further distinction between the unconditional forgiveness of God, which is to forgive and forget, and the conditional human response, which is to forgive and remember. You may feel to forgive and yet remember the fault is impossible, but in my experience this happens. It is something to do with moving on with a relationship as if it is not impossible, and then finding out that forgiveness and remembering the fault turns out to be a means of reconciliation.
Going to finish with three questions,:
Is it reasonable to make a theological distinction between motivation and practice?
Is it reasonable to assert that the unconditional forgiveness of God is to forgive and forget but the conditional human response should be to forgive and remember?
Is it true that God only comes to mind in the context of our ethical concern for others?
Sorry to go on! I have been hogging the blog somewhat!